Sunday, May 20, 2012

eating in Azerbaijan: things getting easier

When I got here I asked an expat who'd been here nearly two years what she did for food.  She has this regimen of pre-packaged Indian food and reliance on our work lunches and eating out with friends, which seemed odd to me.  Here we are in this abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, and you don't get a little jiggy with it?

Turns out she's easily overwhelmed.  Shopping here is kind of a hassle, which I really recognized when I was back in the U.S. and it was sooo easy.  Here you have to go to different places for different things and you have to be strategic.

Buying herbs means hitting a street vendor who may or may not be there because he doesn't sell legally and the police might hassle too much, and you have to get there pretty early in the day for the best looking selection.  Hard to do when working full-time.  Plus, I don't even know what most of these green-looking things are even though I'm very curious to try, but nobody around when I'm buying can explain anything in a language I understand, though sometimes we try.  (People here do love to talk about food, like in New Orleans, and random strangers will point out which tomatoes are best or which green is ok for salad.)

You can't buy much produce in advance because, like in Liberia and probably most of the world outside the U.S., food is grown for flavor and nutrition and not the ability to look pretty on a supermarket shelf indefinitely.  Meat is chopped on a wooden stump and I can't even communicate about what's best for what, like I do with my Whole Foods butchers.

Everything is pretty different here, and if I want any spices I need to walk a couple miles away to the Indian-owned supermarket which gives me some options no other place does.  Most of the items in the supermarket are way outside my experience and I either cannot figure out what it is or how I'd incorporate it into my meals.

And then there are always shameful episodes, like yesterday when I totally wiped out a man's produce shelf while reaching for a carrot.  I'll probably get over the serious embarrassment and go back there because it's super convenient and good prices, but I'll avoid eye contact and sheepishly let him choose the items for me.

Then there are just the logistics like the inability to communicate, like having to walk everywhere and them not allowing you to take anything into the supermarket so having to leave bags, computers, etc. at the check-in (sometimes I pitch a fit to keep my bags with me, but it's a hassle).

And then there are the logistics that Azerbaijanis don't apparently invite people into their homes, and our lunchtime cook doesn't make real Azerbaijani food for some reason, so I don't know what people really eat here and how best to use what there is.

Then there is another level of not having any good kitchen pots/pans or implements except what I brought (and next time, I'm bringing nice pots and pans and luggage allowance be damned).  Then today, I only have one burner working because of some weird payment system for cooking gas which I don't know or understand and somebody else needs to handle for me.  Usually I can live with one burner, but it doesn't work right, and I'm trying to make two batches of soup today from scratch (making the broth for each - one chicken made from the scraps of grilled chicken I buy for pretty cheap, one beef), so things are a little complicated.

All that said, I'm stubborn when facing a hassle, and I like to eat well.  I just had a bowl of my favorite garbanzo-vegetable soup, deleting the noodles and adding a scoop of yogurt (also great with some farmer's cheese sprinkled in it) and I'd modified it to heavy the garbanzos (I have a bunch to use up since I cooked many before) and added eggplant because they looked nice.  Seriously tasty and better than anything I'd go out to get today (Bossman asked me out to brunch, but it's expensive*, takes sooo long, and doesn't taste as good as what I can make myself - plus, have lots to do today).  I will make the other soups today, one borscht to use up dill and accept we've left winter, and the other a chicken tarragon soup with some pretty beans (tarragon, at least what is here, has quickly become my favorite herb).  I'll freeze most of what I make to get me through the rest of my time here, and I'll continue my obsession with lavash (flat bread), farmer's cheese, and tomatoes and cucumbers and herbs.

I eat really, really well here when I can justify spending the time in the kitchen.  And the pleasure of a freezer to store food for the future cannot be overstated.  Here's hoping it keeps working. 

One thing I had last night that I would love to try to make myself is lobiani, a Georgian pastry made with red beans.  But, I have no oven and haven't bought any flour here and don't plan to start - but it's filed away for the future, and I have some leftovers!

Anyway, the whole spark for this post is that I went to the market across the courtyard and got matches (trying to figure out the problem with burners until I realized no cooking gas).  I scanned the shelves and the woman waited nervously.  They hate when I come in because we cannot communicate and they don't know how to deal with that.  "Do you have matches?" I asked in Azeri, as smooth as can be since I looked up the word for matches.  "Yes, we do.  They're behind the register," she responded AND I UNDERSTOOD, then she called in the clerk to get them and ring me up.  That?  That was AWESOME.  It's those really little things that can either stress a person out or just flow along and feel a proficiency.

And now that I feel pretty comfortable getting around and getting whatever I want within reasonable parameters, it's time to leave.

Thanks for the good eats, Azerbaijan. 

*Soup to last for at least five meals costs less than 5 manat (around $7); borscht cost me more like 12 manat because of the meat but will again last probably about six meals.  In contrast, the brunch place one time cost me 30 manat for one meal that wasn't that great (usually more like 20-25 manat).  Cooking for myself is totally a no-brainer. 

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